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Present or past tense?

edited March 2013 in - Writing Problems
Is it rare for the present tense to be used for novels? I was using the LookInside feature on Amazon to check out a self-published horror story and it uses the present tense, which I found tiring to read compared to past tense.


  • It is rare, yes.
  • A lot of literary novels have done it in recent years. I get the impression there's a bit of a backlash against it - especially when it's done in historical novels (Wolf Hall, I think, is an example of this).

    Personally, if the book's well-written I tend to lose sight of the tense after the first page or so. The only real advantage with present tense, first-person narratives, is that you can introduce doubt as to whether the hero will survive at the end of the story. But even that's a bit contrived.
  • I find the use of present tense off-putting and I suspect a lot of other people do, too. I bought "Wolf Hall" but couldn't get beyond the first page because of it.

    The present tense is pretentious and uninvolving.
  • Interesting discussion.
  • [quote=Lah-tay] I bought "Wolf Hall" but couldn't get beyond the first page [/quote]

    Now that is interesting, what with all the prizes and publicity. I keep meaning to put it on my amazon wishlist, maybe I'll wait a while
  • I wrote one of my short stories in the present tense because that was the best way to tell it, but most stories I write, and have read, are in the past tense. As a writer I find the past tense more natural.
  • [quote=DeneBebbo]I wrote one of my short stories in the present tense because that was the best way to tell it,[/quote]

    Yes - some of my OWC shorts are in the present tense. I never make a conscious decision when I write a story in the present tense - it's just what seems to work for that particular story.

    I'm not aware of reading any novels in the present tense, but that doesn't mean they don't exist, although I imagine they’d be a wearing to read.

    As an aside, an author I sometimes love and sometimes hate: Paul Auster, has written a book in the second person. Now that would take some reading that I don’t think I’m prepared to undertake!
  • Present tense is a double edged sword. It can work wonderfully with short stories, but can be a pain in the arse for novels because of the length and because a lot of authors (even famous ones) just cannot get to grips with it, and that is because the tenses start to slip and slide all over the place as the novel progresses. Unless it is well written, I don't read first person novels because once the tenses start going, it puts me off (Twilight is a prime example of horrific tense-torture).

    It can also be limiting and is less explorative as a medium.

    I would advise writers, especially less experienced ones, to think long and hard before they embark on present tense novels.
  • [quote=Lah-tay]I bought "Wolf Hall" but couldn't get beyond the first page because of it. [/quote]

    I've heard it's quite a tough read - not for the faint-hearted, although I haven't looked at it, tbh.
  • I think it can work in short stories and flash fiction, but if I am (oh bliss oh rapture) browsing in an actual physical bookshop, and open a book, and find it written in the present tense, and particularly first person narrative, I put it back on the shelf.
  • Mrs Bear

    I sometimes use first-person narrative but in the past tense. Do you find this off-putting? It would be interestiong to have a general view on this.
  • I know from experience that the present tense is off-putting to many. I spent too long writing a novel in present tense and I regret it now. Which is interesting because when other writers read it as test readers, 99% of them liked the present tense - in fact most never even commented on that aspect of it, as if they hadn't noticed. Some said they didn't usually like it, but in my novel it gave an otherworldly, daydream kind of tone to the story and they enjoyed it in context - which is exactly the effect I was hoping to achieve when I began.

    And then a small press was interested in it. They were initially put off by the present tense, they admitted, but as they read on they came to like the way it was written.

    But after asking to see more and more samples they didn't take it up. I still can't help feeling the present tense was still part of that decision, but maybe that's because I'm reading more negative reactions to the use of present tense on forums, and now I'm sure the present tense (for a debut book especially) is at least one reason no agent showed interest in it.

    I am considering going back and rewriting it in past tense.

    Having said that, as a reader, I don't care whether any book is in past, present, future, third- first- or second-person . . . It doesn't matter to me. As long as it's written well and there's a reason for it, e.g. "If on a winter's night a traveller..." by Italo Calvino. Both present tense and second-person. But there's a reason for it: the form helps to convey the meaning of the story.

    And that's what's important, I think, with any story. Some writers seem to make arbitrary decisions on how to tell a story (usually when they are writing in present tense). But there should always be a reason for our choices, and I don't think that's pretentious. We have a wonderful toolkit of language that we shouldn't be afraid to use. Having studied narrative analysis and linguistics years back, there are so many stories written by brilliant authors that are written in ways other than past tense and third person; but the important thing is they work because there's a reason they're written like that, connected to the meaning of the text.
  • edited March 2013
    (Edited to say this message crossed with TS's, which tells of interesting experiences).

    I'm surprised at the drift in this thread. Present tense writing is quite the rage in YA fiction, and kids must like it because it's becoming so widespread. The Hunger Games, for example, is all present tense, except, as Red points out, when other tenses are required (short excerpt below: the opening para of Mockingjay). Also Patrick Ness's award winning and best-selling trilogy Chaos Walking (The Knife of Never Letting Go, etc.). As soon as you get into the story, as danfango says, tenses disappear like 'he said' and other props. I think use of the present tense is part of the modern requirement to involve the reader in the here-and-now story experience, inside the head of the POV character.

    Here's how tenses mix, as they do in past tense novels when required, from the start of Hunger Games Bk3:

    I stare down at my shoes, watching as a fine layer of ash forms on the worn leather. This is where the bed I shared with my sister, Prim, stood. Over there was the kitchen table. The bricks of the chimney, which collapsed in a charred heap, provide a point of reference for the rest of the house. How else could I orient myself in this sea of grey?

    Dialogue takes a bit of getting used to. Here's an example:

    "I blocked the doorway when he tried to follow you," says Gale.
    "They'll probably punish you," I say.
    "Already have."

    I'm seriously thinking of changing my novel (debut) from past to present before submitting it to an agent, and I'll use Chapter One as a test.
  • [quote=Dwight]I'm seriously thinking of changing my novel (debut) from past to present before submitting it to an agent, and I'll use Chapter One as a test.[/quote]

    I suppose I've become more unsure of using present tense to try to sell a debut novel. But I haven't stopped using it in short stories where it's appropriate. I'm writing one now, and I've just submitted a story with 2 narrators: one present and one past.
  • Wow, that sounds interesting. I remember doing an essay (I think it was at degree level) on how effectively Emily Bronte used multiple narrators in Wuthering Heights, both to heighten the unbelievableness of what Ellen Dean was narrating, and yet to add feasability to it when seen through the eyes of Lockwood, the reasonable representative of cultured civilisation. All past tense though.
  • [quote=pbw]Lah-tay wrote: I bought "Wolf Hall" but couldn't get beyond the first page because of it.

    I've heard it's quite a tough read - not for the faint-hearted, although I haven't looked at it, tbh.[/quote]

    I've read Wolf Hall recently, and have to say I thoroughly enjoyed it. There was an 'immediacy' about it that, for me, brought these long-ago events to life.

    I have written stuff in the present tense, with little success. Not something I would persevere with.
  • pbwpbw
    edited March 2013
    [quote=Lah-tay] first-person narrative but in the past tense.[/quote]

    No, I don't find it off-putting. I am currently using first person, past tense for two MCs, and third person past tense for the third MC. I find it gives a very powerful delivery. With this novel, I had experimented with past and present tense and with first and third person viewpoints. Present tense didn't work for it, I agree (better for short stories) but as I have it now, it's working very well.

    I'm interested in your comments, dwight. I loved The Hunger Games. I hadn't been aware Present Tense was quite so popular. Maybe the HC gets away with it because the time period of the action is relatively short. My current WIP goes over a longer period and I decided a while ago present tense wouldn't work.
  • I hadn't considered time period as a factor, pbw. Come to think of it, that could make present tense more attractive for me, since the whole trilogy covers about three weeks - a kind of chase story to three different parts of the globe. Imagine Holmes and Moriarty following one another relentlessly until one of them is finished off, but the good of mankind is at stake at the same time as powers of heaven and hell throw another Paradise Lost showdown.

    In fact, if I remember rightly, aren't parts of Paradise Lost in the present tense?
  • I haven't read Wolf Hall, but all my friends have and most of them loved it. But the Bringing up the Bodies one which won the Booker this year, we read the whole shortlist, and that one irritated the hell out of me because she didn't seem skilled enough to imply who was speaking, so a lot of the narrative was broken by 'he (name of speaker) to tell you! I didn't finish it.
  • [quote=Dwight]that could make present tense more attractive for me,[/quote]

    It sounds as if present tense could make your concept really sizzle, dwight. It might leave your reader a bit breathless keeping up with the pace though, so you might have to insert a few "breathers" at strategic intervals. (Not quite sure how but I'm sure you'll work it out).
    Good luck.
  • [quote= Dwight]I'm surprised at the drift in this thread. Present tense writing is quite the rage in YA fiction, and kids must like it because it's becoming so widespread. [/quote]

    That's because kids love immediacy, the notion of 'now' and they readily identify with it. It was like that when I was a kid so nothing has changed much, but I am not a great fan of reading present tense stories at length, simply because it takes some skill to get it right, and when it isn't right I don't read it. I'd rather the author invest heavily in the way they write present tense and get it right. Even editors can balls it up, so it gives you an indication of how difficult it can be to maintain.
  • Have to say I wasn't aware of a trend for present tense usage in YA fiction, but I don't read it - at the moment. I will because it's something I'd like to try my hand at.

    Immediacy is another reason I chose present tense for my own novel. It's a horror story, and I decided that horror surely benefits from feeling like you're there, in the moment, not reading after the fact - when you know it's safe, because it all happened in the past.

    But as I said, it's reading all the negativity towards present tense in various places that has made me think about rewriting in past tense. Fix some of the other things that I think could do with an overhaul, and present what seems to be a safer package.

    Or should I just stick to my guns on present tense, make those other changes to the story, and then take another crack at submitting or self-publishing?
  • I think it all depends on the skill of the writer. Present tense is absolutely perfect for some novels and if well written I hardly notice.
  • I'd agree with that entirely, Liz.

    I've heard a lot of people say they find present tense tiring or annoying, and I can't understand that at all.

    I think if the tense stands out, either the writer has been clumsy with it and hasn't incorporated into the story properly, or the reader is perhaps being over-critical.

    It can work very well if the story skips back and forth in time, with flashbacks in past tense and what's going on now in present.
  • Interesting thread this one. I think it depends on genres too, I read a lot of literary novels and have found present tense appearing a lot recently. I don't mind reading it, but I would never write in it. I write romance novels, generally category, and most romance publishers won't even take first person POV, never mind present tense. If I wrote one, I'd never sell it!
  • [quote=polar bear]most romance publishers won't even take first person POV, never mind present tense[/quote]

    Can you elaborate on that? Are there technical reasons, or is it convention as in "we've always done it this way." How do you find out things like that?
  • It's not technical, it's just the big publishers, Harlequin M&B etc, don't tend to go for it. I've seen one or two books, but they are the exception and generally by the well-known writers! One of the New Voices top three entries a couple of years ago was 1st person, and she had to re-write it into 3rd before they'd take it. The new e-pubs are more likely to be flexible though. Entangled certainly take 1st person and I'm sure Musa do. A lot of these things aren't set down as rules, but you pick them up when you're involved in the romance communities. I've learnt a lot from entering the New Voices and SYTYCW comps, even though I didn't get anywhere! M&B released a short, free book for their entrants on how to write for them but I've just checked Amazon and it's not there anymore.
  • Well, there you are - the first book I buy on Kindle and it's in third person present tense. How revolutionary of me! May as well do all the firsts at once.
  • The reason the resent tense is off-putting is that it is so often done badly and very rarely done well. When it is perfected it is very easy to read. My preference has always been past tense but when I do come across well written present tense I realise how well it can work. Not an easy one to do well, though!
  • Oooh, present's not for me, I'm afraid.

    It leaves me out of breath keeping up with the protagonist.
  • edited May 2013
    Short leg syndrome again, TN?
  • I won the sack race once, I'll have you know.
  • I just read 'Severed' by Simon Kernick. First person, present tense. Bit strange at first as used to reading past tense, but thoroughly enjoyed taking every nail biting step alongside the main character.
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